Although a mainstay of South Side dining options, Cafe du Jour tends to fly a little under the radar. It has no Web site. The narrow, unimposing facade is easy to miss even when you're looking for it. Inside, the kitchen takes up almost as much space as the tables and chairs that make up the dining room.
Partly hidden by a row of empty wine bottles, chef/owner Paul Krawiec and a few cooks work in spartan conditions -- just four burners, an oven and a little counter space for prepping and plating.
2 stars = Very good
1 1/2 stars = Good+
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
2 stars = Very good
1107 E. Carson St., South Side
- Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
- Basics: Bistro-style dishes with French flair served in a cozy backyard garden and an even cozier dining room.
- Recommended dishes: Cold cantaloupe soup, goat-cheese stuffed chicken breast, steak, pan-seared scallops, blackberry and almond cheesecake
- Prices: Soups, salads and small plates, $3-12; entrees, $17-25; desserts, $7.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; cash only; reservations encouraged; corkage, $2 per person
- Noise level: Low to medium loud.
Given the close quarters, it's difficult to imagine how the restaurant fares in February, but in August diners sometimes have to call more than a week in advance for Saturday night reservations. During the summer months in good weather all guests sit outside in the courtyard patio behind the restaurant, where a burbling fountain and wrought-iron tables lend the restaurant a romantic, continental feel. People come for the setting and the food, but also for the prices, which are lower than many restaurants with similar menus.
The porcini-dusted New York strip steak ($25) was very good. Slightly lumpy mashed potatoes were garnished with walnuts, an excellent complement to the rich flavor of the gorgonzola butter melting into the crust. Thick wedges of grilled zucchini lent the plate a hint of summer freshness.
Goat-cheese-stuffed chicken breast ($23) with cauliflower puree, roasted potatoes and crispy bacon showcases some of the French flavors at a restaurant that's more French in attitude than in menu items. The simple buttery sweetness of the cauliflower puree was a good foil for the slight sourness of the goat cheese stuffing.
Serving sizes are generally small so leftovers aren't a given. Occasionally, keeping prices low comes at the expense of putting together a well-balanced dish. The smoked trout salad ($10) with roasted potatoes, yogurt sauce and oyster mushrooms is a fantastic combination of flavors and textures.
Unfortunately, the portion of trout was miniscule and the yogurt sauce seemed to have been applied with a teaspoon. After two small bites one was left with roasted potatoes and oyster mushrooms -- a slightly dry and not entirely harmonious combination. It would have been much better to charge a few dollars more and serve a larger portion of trout.
Those lower prices come with other trade-offs -- there are no white tablecloths, service is casual and timing is sometimes spotty.
On a busy weekday, the one server was practically running among tables. Water went unfilled, there were long lags between dishes, and at one point it took five minutes to replace cleared utensils (typically, they try not to clear them). On a Saturday night, with more service staff, things ran smoother.
Timing also can be an issue in the kitchen. One night a pork chop ($22) was overcooked and dry, but came with undercooked and bitter broccoli rabe. Many of the hot dishes were closer to room temperature by the time they made it to our table. On another visit, a miniature wheel of baked brie ($8) that might at one time have been unctuous and gooey, perfect for scooping onto rounds of baguette, was served cold and hard. Out of season (and thus mealy) Granny Smith apples and wedges of pale, doughy baguette didn't help this uninspired appetizer.
Dishes less sensitive to precise cooking times and quick serving can be better bets. The goat cheese and tomato tart ($10) won't suffer if it sits on the counter for a few minutes. A delicate, crispy puff pastry shell was filled with warm chevre and topped with roasted tomatoes and a dollop of red onions caramelized until they had almost a jam-like texture and brightened with just a touch of vinegar.
Wild mushroom consomme (cup, $3; bowl, $6) was tasty, if a little on the salty side. The woodsy aromas and pungent earthy flavor were pleasantly intense, especially for such a light starter.
The kitchen does take extra care to make sure that seafood isn't overcooked. Sea-salt-and-olive-oil-roasted salmon ($22) was moist and flavorful, with a lovely sauce of yogurt, capers and lime gently spooned over the top of the filet. Pan-seared scallops ($21) were given a beautiful presentation. A pile of couscous studded with green capers and chopped herbs and molded into a small tower stood at the center of the plate. It was surrounded by a ring of petite seared scallops alternating with lightly roasted cherry tomatoes, like numbers on a clock. A small pool of tomato broth lent the dish an appealing sheen and a sort of juiciness that intensified the sweetness of every bite.
The success of a daily special suggested that Cafe du Jour's most seasonal options also are more likely to be the most successful. A bowl of chilled cantaloupe soup ($8) was sweet, smooth and full of ripe melon flavor. It was drizzled with yogurt and garnished with a small pile of five-spice pickled shrimp and thinly sliced jalapenos. The combination of the warm spices, the sourness of the pickling and the yogurt and the heat of the jalapenos was intoxicating -- a step above anything else I'd tried on the menu.
If the kitchen is capable of producing this soup, why aren't more of the dishes at this level? I'd guess that the size and setup of the kitchen is a serious hindrance, and one that's unfortunately not likely to change soon.
Considering that the restaurant has only one oven, it's no surprise that it farms out desserts ($8). The best of the bunch was a cheesecake with lovely hints of almond in the crust and cake and a decadent blackberry sauce. But it didn't have the elegance of a plated restaurant dessert and it wasn't good enough to make up for the other lackluster tarts I had tried, including a slightly grainy chocolate tart and a dry, somewhat flavorless passion fruit custard tart.
Then again, if you skip dessert, your check will be that much more reasonable, and you can put those extra dollars toward another delightful evening at Cafe du Jour. And, if we're all lucky, they'll use some of that money to renovate the kitchen.